On Cheating, Peer Pressure, and Recognition in the TCG

Dear recently aged-up Master, Senior, Junior, long-time player, parent, or other interested reader,

This, I’ll admit, is something I don’t relish writing, but is something I think needs to be said.  One of the most profound effects of last season’s shift to cash prizing, the spotlight of an official stream on the biggest stages, and an overall increased high-stakes nature of tournaments is the spotlight on cheating in the game.  The game has changed, and some of what I’ve seen with it, if I’m being honest, is sad. Today, we bring 15 year olds into a hot mess of pseudo-celebrities, peer pressure, and other influences on all sides—and I think the mark might be being missed at the moment.

It’s that transition that I want to write about today.  It’s not on SixPrizes because it delves more into social science (or, social “science,” as it may be) than the TCG.  My goal is to keep it shorter than most things I write so that it’s readable by more people.  In a way, it’s my message to those going through that age-up transition, but it can apply to new Seniors going through the same, or any other player who identifies with any of the issues I talk about.  I feel it’s a good topic as something that’s bothering me at the moment, and as someone that went through that transition myself.  There’ll be some background, then my message to these players a bit through.

Background: The Issues at Hand

Now, although I say I went through that transition myself, I’d be lying if I maintained any pretense of it being the same thing.  2014, while the last of the “small” World Championships, and an entirely different world.  Overnight, with the introduction of International Championships and Regional Championships’ move to being non-parallel, an “elite” group of Masters players has sprung up.  You know them—they’re everywhere.  They have that reputed “Top 16 NA” group chat where they all discuss the next best way to mislead the playing public into playing whichever deck that fits their Machiavellian purposes…

Okay, that’s the first, and probably only, joke today.  I was in said group chat for a Pokemon.com malfunction of about 10 hours last year, and you can rest assured it’s not the staging ground for fixing the next tournament.  Nevertheless, that group of players exists, and one way or another, it’s become apparent to me that a number of our Juniors and Seniors look up to them.  I don’t fancy myself among the 5-10 “elites” in the game we see doing well at everything, but I know that I get a share of messages, or approaches at tournaments, from parents+their kids wanting to have a chat.

If I’m getting them, I know that those above me are getting them yet more so, and while I’m touched every time—I’ve cried at one or two, yes—it scares me a bit, too. Celebrityism, peer pressure, and other social issues that come into play are an awkward spot for the mid-teenaged, whose social, uh, faculties, are a well-studied and documented issue.  In watching many of our age-up Seniors, I’ve come to realize that some seek validation, or approval, from their older peers—whether they’ll ever admit to it or not.

I’ll start: I know what feeling to look for because I knew it well in my early days as a Master, after an honestly-mediocre Senior career (my claim to fame is losing the first round of cut—a lot).  I was positioned fairly uniquely, with my good friends in the game already being Masters and a legacy of them valuing my opinion, so on paper I should have been happy.  Nevertheless, there is always another plateau to achieve, and I know a part of me wanted more recognition, even as I attained the Worlds invitation in one of the last “hard” years.

In such a social structure as what this game has established, it makes sense that this happens, and to a degree, it probably isn’t particularly harmful.  Personally, it was perhaps motivation—a chip on my shoulder, you might say. I was aware enough not to let it consume me as a drive—and, in most cases, I think many of our age-ups can healthily manage the effect.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that the effect is something that did, does, and will exist for most, or all, that go through the transition.  I went through it in a year where the big headline was that Worlds was harder—honestly, nothing compared to what we see now. I can’t imagine going through it in today’s circuit, where there’s a clearly-identifiable group of elites, giant tournaments, and cash to boot.

The Problem: The Edge to Get There

I want to be careful in how I write this because I want to avoid personally identifying any particular players or experiences, other than my own, that I’ve become aware of.  The root of the problem, though, is that I believe these pressures, in conjunction with others, are leading to an uptick in efforts to cheat.  Now, I don’t want to imply that there’s a single cause here: there’s never a single cause behind anything.  But, it’s my belief that these that they are a significant cause in the equation.  Parental pressures, which I’ve written about before, probably are present in some circumstances. Some individuals will find their drive to sneak by at the rules’ edge in some other medium.

Fundamentally, I want to communicate this to the player who may be reading this today: in the end, cheating will not be worthwhile.  I’m not going to lie to you either, though: the idea that “cheaters never win” isn’t real either.  There are probably dishonest people at the top level of this game, just as there are probably dishonest people at the top level of most things.  Here are the two main incentives I want to present you:

  1. By cheating, you will cheat yourself out of the ability to ever feel truly good about an accomplishment in the game.  Those feelings of wanting to be recognized? They may be satisfied on the surface, but internally, you will forever know that it is fraud.  You may never be caught in the public eye, but you will never escape yourself.
  2. The community will, should you ever be exposed, rip you to shreds.

I am not often accused of being an optimist or an idealist, but I’ll concede that my first consequence is a little washy.  Some people, inevitably, aren’t going to be bothered by that.  Some won’t even be bothered by the second.  Unfortunately, as a society, those people exist and all we can do is see them rooted out.  I don’t know that the epistemological question of “someone beyond saving” needs to come into play here, but I do believe that some people will be easier to pull off this path than others.  I don’t know that I’ll achieve anything at all by writing this, but my hope is that even one person reads it, and it resonates.  The first consequence, I think, is the best route to some types of people.  To me, it would be far more serious than the community’s wrath, but I know that different people think differently.

But, the community: Never before have we had such a bright light shining in so many places.  Judges are, believe it or not, onto more things than credit is sometimes given for, the big Facebook groups don’t hesitate to descend into a mob-mentality over something that looks dicey on a stream, and players in general are more vigilant.  It’s my belief—and here I may be charged with optimism—that someone habitually cheating is probably going to get caught eventually.  We’re getting there in enforcement.

Example: With most people, and in most scenarios, I refuse to talk about the Michael Long saga.  He, allegedly, was finally disqualified from Memphis’ TCG Regional, and supposedly is now on the banned players list after a long run of events that were a lot of smoke, sans fire.  I’m not an Organizer; I can’t see the list.  If the rumors are true, and he is, though, he is the prime example of what this community can do. I generally refuse to talk about it for a pair of reasons:

  1. I didn’t want to add to a fire that was already burning, and wanted to feel empathy for the NAIC situation.  There is a world where that could have not been malicious. I wanted to live in it.  That’s on me, at this point.
  2. If what is alleged is true, I was wrong in my judgement, and I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I seem to have gotten that wrong.

In general, I wouldn’t discuss it here, but I think it’s enough a matter of public record now that it serves this purpose: if you, as a new Master, or any other player, are thinking about taking that step toward cheating, please go search up “Michael Long” on HeyFonte, Virbank City, or wherever you like.  Replace his name with yours, and try to envision how that would feel.  I would like to hope it’s enough to dissuade many.

I don’t presume to tell anyone how to parent, how to manage their life, or anything of that nature.  I do, though, wish to bring exposure to an issue that I believe is very serious at the moment.  I don’t want to think the worst about any player in this game, but there are examples where I grow wearier by the day.

Maybe I’m barking up an invisible tree.  Maybe I’ve missed the mark.

Or, maybe, I’ll reach a person or two.

I’d like to hope for that.


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